MYSTERY WIRE (AP) — NASA is targeting a first flight of its experimental Martian helicopter no sooner than April 11, with data arriving back on Earth the following day. The attempt will mark a “Wright brothers’ moment,” the first powered, controlled flight on another planet.
NASA’s newest Mars rover hit the dusty red road recently.
But before the car-size Perseverance can head for an ancient river delta to collect rocks for eventual return to Earth, it must release an experimental helicopter, named Ingenuity.
After locating a suitable “helipad” close to the rover’s landing site, NASA said it’s targeting a first flight no sooner than April 11.
“From day one, this was the unwavering dream of our team, to get our helicopter launched to Mars, so that we can get that opportunity to do the very first rotorcraft flight test in the actual environment of Mars,” says Ingenuity project manager MiMi Aung.
One of the biggest challenges faced by scientists and engineers is just how to get the helicopter off the ground in the Martian environment.
Atmospheric pressure on the red planet is very low, about one percent of atmospheric pressure on Earth.
“The first and foremost challenge is to make a vehicle that’s light enough to be lifted, and then second is to generate lift, the rotors, the rotor system has to spin very fast,” says Aung.
The attempt will mark a “Wright brothers’ moment,” the first powered, controlled flight on another planet.
“When the Wright brothers flew for the first time, they didn’t fly a fully-equipped passenger airplane, they flew an experimental aircraft to show that it’s possible to do powered flights,” says Ingenuity chief pilot Havard Grip.
During a NASA briefing on March 23, Ingenuity chief engineer Bob Balaram said the Mars helicopter holds a piece of the Wright brothers’ first airplane, a small swatch of fabric from the 1903 Wright Flyer.
The Carillon Historical Park in Dayton, Ohio, the Wrights’ hometown, donated the postage-size piece of muslin from the plane’s bottom left wing, at NASA’s request.
The swatch made the 300-million-mile journey to Mars with the blessing of the Wright brothers’ great-grandniece and great-grandnephew.
“We are very proud to honor that experimental aircraft from long ago by carrying a small piece of fabric on Ingenuity,” says Balaram.
NASA’s 4-pound (1.8-kilogram) helicopter will attempt to rise 10 feet (3 meters) into the extremely thin Martian air on its first hop.
Up to five increasingly higher and longer flights are planned over the course of a month.
“It’ll be the first powered flight by an aircraft on another planet, and we’ve, in fact, met most of our goals for this project just by getting to the point where we are right now,” says Grip.
Systems engineer Farah Alibay says the process of deploying Ingenuity will be a delicate one.
“The most stressful day, at least for me, is going to be that last day where we finally separate the helicopter and drop Ingenuity on the ground,” she says.
If Ingenuity is successful during its 31-day experimental trip, the small helicopter will prove that powered flights can be accomplished on Mars.
The future could see next-generation helicopters scouting out distant Martian territory for astronauts or robots.
“Ingenuity will open new possibilities and will spark questions for the future about what we could accomplish with an aerial explorer,” says Lori Glaze, director of NASA’s Planetary Science Division.
“If this thing works, our capability to explore Mars is going to expand by orders of magnitude, both with purely robotic and combined human robot exploration,” says Robert Zubrin, president of advocacy group the Mars Society.
Ingenuity’s helicopter airfield is right next to the Perseverance rover’s landing site in Jezero Crater.
The rover will observe the test flights from a distant perch, before driving away to pursue its own mission: hunting for signs of ancient Martian life.
Rock samples will be set aside for eventual return to Earth.